Season of the shark
Almost as if to mark their status as a protected British species, basking sharks turned up in record numbers off Devon and Cornwall early this summer at the start of their annual migration up the West Coast. Tony Sutton got in among them.
Pictures by Dan Burton and Tony Sutton
Basking shark!" someone shouted. The engine revs dropped, and Berry and I scrambled for our fins, masks and cameras.
For once, basking sharks were what we were expecting. There had been sensational stories in the local and national media the previous day that 500 of these creatures - the second largest fish in the sea, capable of reaching 10 metres in length and weighing up to 7 tonnes - had invaded the Cornish coast around the Lizard.
Perhaps 500 was an exaggeration. But the sharks, which visit British waters during the summer months to feed on plankton, were certainly present in far greater numbers than normal. Surely, we had thought, there would be enough of them out there for us to find one the next day.
Now, this shark's nose-tip, dorsal fin and tail fins were breaking the surface in an enigmatic scything motion. It had a small nick out of its dorsal fin, the bit behind the leading edge not far from the tip.
Thirty seconds later, just metres away from us, we saw a huge black mass shoot from the water surface. It rose into the air, then came back down with a resounding thwack. Basking sharks leaping out of the water like whales, whatever next!
"Watch its direction and drop us ahead," I shouted to Margaret, who was at the helm.
This was not easy, because the shark kept changing direction. Then I realised that this wasn't going to be a fruitless chase, as so often in the past. The animal was coming to us! Over the side we went, and I caught a glimpse of the shark's bulk as it swept past.
More was to come. The shark circled and came back. This time I saw its gaping mouth - a mouth that seemed big enough to accommodate two or three divers comfortably. At the last moment it swerved away. I could have touched it. I was so excited I pressed the wrong camera lever. No shots!
I had never before been in the water with something this size. It must have been at least 5.5m long - a mere pup by basking-shark standards, but awesome by mine.
It came round again and I was able to fin right up to it. This time the camera worked, but my position wasn't as good as the first time. It made two more passes. Every time it went by I could clearly see its huge gills and two eel-like shapes by the anal fins - they looked like the remora sucker fish that often attach themselves to sharks.
"A dozen shots taken, two dozen to go," I thought.
Then Margaret's voice cut into my reverie.
"C'mon, time to go, you'll see plenty more today!" she called in her school-mistressy voice.
To my surprise, I found myself obeying her command and climbing back into the boat without a murmur of dissent.
Berry had already given up, saying his camera lens wasn't wide enough to capture shark images, and confessed that, anyway, he had not been able to see the fish under water.
We headed towards the Manacles, and I began to suspect that I had made a dreadful mistake when I climbed back into the boat.
However, as we reached flat water in the inner channel through the Manacles, we passed close to two more basking sharks without altering our speed or direction.
Then, dead ahead, we saw a single enormous dorsal fin disappearing beneath the surface. As we hove to, our minds raced through the possibilities: killer whale, porbeagle shark, sunfish...?
Suddenly, from behind us, a noise in the water! As we turned to look, an enormous creature, probably twice the size of the sharks we had seen so far, passed underneath the boat. It was another basking shark; but presumably its greater bulk made it lie lower in the water, so that only its dorsal fin was exposed. You could feel the enormous power of the creature as it swept past, dwarfing our 5.5m RIB. Unlike the sharks we has seen previously, this one did not resurface.
We set off again and passed two more basking sharks before we reached our destination by Black Rock to dive the wreck of the Carmarthen.
Under water, we saw the vessel's boilers, rising 4m from the 21m bottom. Their sides were covered in deadmen's fingers and hydroids. There were a few pretty ballan wrasse, and a brilliant male cuckoo wrasse in its mating colours - its snout a deep electric blue.
As I surfaced, the dorsal fin of another big basking shark appeared about 20m away. The animal remained still for a few seconds, then disappeared below the surface. It was one o'clock in the afternoon. We had seen seven basking sharks in the space of 2 hours over a distance of 9 miles.
All around us, basking-shark fever was rife. Boats of all descriptions were motoring and sailing by, looking for at least one of the reported 500. Occasionally, the boats would cluster together as they spotted a shark, and arms would be stretched out in an attempt to indicate size.
Many of the basking sharks observed carried white scars on their backs, the results of encounters with boats. And one unfortunate shark was chopped up accidentally by one of the fishing boats; the fishermen were amazed at the huge amount of oil that flowed out of the creature, enough to have a calming effect on the surrounding water.
When we pulled into Coverack for lunch, the surrounding headlands were like a twitchers' convention. Telescopes, binoculars, cameras and naked eyes all strained seawards to catch a glimpse of these huge creatures that had invaded the Cornish coast.
For us, however, that dorsal fin at the end of the dive was the last we saw of any basking shark that day.
Appeared in DIVER - July 1998